When Takako Saito got involved with the Fluxus art movement in the 1960s, she didn’t think of herself as an artist. In her 20s she had worked as a junior high school teacher in Japan and participated in the postwar Sōbi Society for Creative Art Education, which allowed children to shape their own classroom experience by emphasizing creative play. Instead of forcing her students to write exercises and study grammar, she let them play baseball. As the students waited to bat, she would talk to them about writing, and over time they began asking questions and producing stories of their own. Even though Saito’s students barely used their textbook, when an outside university tested their proficiency, they scored the second highest among five (more traditional) classrooms.
When Saito moved to New York City in 1963 and befriended Fluxus founder George Maciunas, she began to make work that reflected her teaching ethos, breaking down the boundaries between media and incorporating everyday objects and performance into her work. “I don’t want people to be an audience,” she explained in a 2014 interview, “I want everybody to be participants. Everybody involved!” The artist produced many pieces for Fluxus, most notably a series of surreal, multi-sensory chess sets in which the uniform pieces were differentiated by things like sound, smell, and weight. (These better-known works of Saito’s were a highlight of the recent exhibition Out of Bounds: Japanese Women Artists in Fluxus at Japan Society). A game like this isn’t about winning or losing; the artist sees it as a source of playful interaction, an elaboration of her work with child psychology.
Another side of Saito’s oeuvre is on view in Out of the Box at The Women’s Darkroom + Gallery, a charmingly DIY space with a darkroom for rent in a Clinton Hill artist loft building. When you visit, gallery owner Lisa Martin will play a vinyl record of Saito’s ambient “Space Music,” which makes for great atmosphere. The show features a range of photogram drawings and hand-stamped prints from 1985, some of which evoke Russian Constructivist illustrations for children. Most of these humorous, inventive works resemble human faces, using everyday objects like leaves, oil, or the bottom of a boot to conjure up eyes, nose, and a mouth. With her photograms, Saito reimagines light-sensitive paper as a surface for drawing; the surface of her gelatin silver prints record both the texture of her materials and the lines that she traces with her hand, blurring the boundaries between photography and printmaking. While the figures she creates are abstract, they all have a warm, welcoming presence.
A standout piece is Saito’s tapestry collaboration with her fellow Fluxus artist George Brecht, in which the artists transcribe and translate text from a Chinese Buddhist poem onto two embroidered faces. Most of the works on view — virtually all of which are unique — are surprisingly affordable in today’s hyperinflated art market, offering viewers an opportunity to support a dynamic artist who deserves a closer look.
Takako Saito: Out of the Box continues at The Women’s Darkroom + Gallery (36 Waverly Avenue #403, Brooklyn) through March 2. The exhibition was curated by Lisa Martin.